Every day, hungry patrons feast on everything from chicken and waffles to Chilean sea bass at one of Los Angeles County’s 150 black-owned restaurants. For the eateries, however, it’s a constant struggle to bring in patrons while juggling tight budgets and vying against the numerous other restaurants in town. But what if restaurants could unite to use their buying power to get discounts on food and equipment, cheaper advertising rates, and promotion deals? That idea was sparked a year ago at the 1999 Los Angeles Black Business Expo by Harold Hambrick, currently executive director of the Expo. Thus the Los Angeles Black Restaurant Association (LABRA) was born.
With 16 member restaurants, LABRA’s focus is to “effectively use our buying power to promote and grow black restaurants,” says Dean Jones, general manager of the Expo and advisor to LABRA. “We say to food distributors, ‘We’re a group of businesses who need spices and food. If you give us a discount, you’ll get lots of business.’” LABRA receives 10% to 20% off on various purchases.
Among LABRA’s members are Coley’s Jamaican Restaurant, the M&M Restaurant, Shabazz Seafood, and Aunt Kizzy’s Back Porch. LABRA meets monthly to discuss strategies on everything from how to increase and diversify clientele to competing against fast-food eateries, says Muriel Jones, owner of Shabazz Seafood and LABRA president. LABRA holds workshops, the most recent by the L.A. Department of Health.
“The restaurants got information on the department’s new standards and they met a contact from the Health Department, which is very important,” says Jones. Another LABRA perk, she says, is the camaraderie among members. “I’ve been in business for 15 years and I could never pick up the phone and talk to someone about my problems. With LABRA, I may sit next to another member who’s gone through the same thing and has a solution,” she says. “For new restaurant owners it’s a way to get mentored by experienced restaurateurs.”
That was one reason Desirée Edwards, owner of the Watts Coffee House, became a founding member. “LABRA’s not only cost-effective but [it's] a way to share information,” she says. Edwards would like to see the organization become involved in the community. “We should train youth in the wide variety of careers available in the food industry, and hire young people to help them get a trade. I also think LABRA could educate people in lower-income communities on how to spend their limited income on the most nutritional meals by providing nutritional information and food education seminars,” she explains. And Edwards sees LABRA as a vehicle to promote the patronization of neighborhood restaurants. “All too often we go outside of our communities to dine,” she notes. “LABRA can encourage people to support the community and its businesses.”
LABRA membership is $200 annually. Members vow to provide the best quality food and consumer service possible. Besides collective buying, LABRA does cooperative advertising, radio promotions, and publicity, and it participates in joint catering events. Regarding the latter, Rep. Maxine Waters recently contacted LABRA when she